Close but no cigar: US-Cuba wrangle on embassies 6 months after shock announcement on warming

Economic Indicators Associated Press

Six months ago Wednesday, Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro stunned the world by announcing an end to their nations' half-century of official hostility.

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U.S. travelers, politicians and executives flew to Cuba as if a Caribbean Berlin Wall had crumbled. Some business-backed interest groups lobbied Congress to end a more than 50-year trade embargo. American soccer and basketball stars played for excited crowds in Havana. The website Airbnb expanded to the island, listing thousands of private homes available for rent across the country.

U.S. and Cuban diplomats went hunting for additional office space, readied flagpoles and ordered office supplies that say "embassy" instead of "interests section." Yet, even as observers say a deal is imminent, a half year later the two governments have not taken the important but symbolic step of turning their "interests" offices into formal embassies in Havana and Washington.

"It shows you the complexity of this process," said Jesus Arboleya, a political scientist and former Cuban diplomat in Washington. "If the first step has taken this much time, imagine the conflicts that can develop after it gets started."

No embassy deal has been announced despite four rounds of wrangling over U.S. diplomats' freedom to travel around Cuba and import supplies. The issues on the table after the embassies open are far more complicated. They include talks on human rights; demands for compensation for confiscated American properties in Havana and damages to Cuba from the embargo; and possible cooperation on law enforcement that includes the touchy topic of U.S. fugitives sheltering in Havana.

Plenty of people and groups oppose any U.S.-Cuba warming, including some dissidents on the island, anti-Castro Cuban-Americans and some members of Congress who believe the new policy essentially rewards Communist leaders for decades of human rights abuses. Presidential Republican candidates like Sen. Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida have both come out firmly against rapprochement.

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But polls say detente has strong public backing in both countries, leading many to believe the process is irreversible.

"Even if it takes a while, for whatever reason, the embassy will open and relations will be re-established," said David Fuentes, a parking lot attendant in Havana. "It just seems inevitable to me."

Sen. Jeff Flake, a key Republican advocate of better ties, met with Cuba's foreign minister and first vice president over the weekend and told The Associated Press that an embassy opening date is "imminent."

But some advocates fear the broader process is moving too slowly to guarantee that a future U.S. president won't be able to reverse Obama's loosening of the trade embargo on Cuba, just as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush did after openings by Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

Robert Muse, a Washington attorney specializing in U.S. law on Cuba, said Obama deserves credit for his bold and unexpected opening with Cuba in December, but is also justly criticized for letting the relationship get bogged down in the minutiae of negotiations over embassy operations.

"I would like to see the president maintain a pace of normalization that will get him to his goal. The goal is the legacy of normalized relations between the U.S. and Cuba," Muse said. "You can't negotiate your way to normalization with Cuba in the time that Obama has to get this done."

Advocates of normalization face powerful brakes on progress in both countries.

In Washington, anti-Castro lawmakers have attached riders to appropriations bills that would roll back Obama's loosening of trade and travel.

In Cuba, aging leaders fear swift, uncontrolled change that would cost them power and spawn disorder in a country that dreads the violence and inequality scarring some regional neighbors. That fear is heightened by the United States' long history of trying to topple Castro and his brother Fidel.

"I think we're just realizing the degree to which they spent 40-plus years with this being as deep into their DNA as imaginable," said James Williams, head of Engage Cuba, a corporate-backed bipartisan group that launched pro-engagement lobbying efforts Tuesday. "We're not just going to turn the lights on and it's going to be fixed overnight."

A few real links between the U.S. and Cuba have nonetheless been forged since the announcement by Obama and Castro. U.S. travelers can book lodging in Cubans' homes through Airbnb; the cost of calls to Cuba dropped after a new international telecommunications deal; and a New York research center will run a clinical trial of a Cuban lung-cancer treatment. The U.S. has approved new ferry services from Florida to Cuba and opened the door to direct air service between the two countries.

Amid those changes, there is a new sense of possibility and optimism among many in Cuba. But it hasn't kept thousands more Cuban migrants than usual from heading to the United States to take advantage of preferential immigration rights they fear may soon disappear.

While U.S. businesses say Cuba is showing itself to be receptive to new projects, it has yet to take any real measures to make them possible.

Sarah Stephens, head of the pro-engagement Center for Democracy in the Americas and leader of dozens of U.S. congressional trips to the island, said Cuban officials want to be equal partners in the future of a country that they believe should be more than just a market where American business can do what it wants.

"It's certainly the message that the Cuban officials are giving: 'That if you want to engage with us, it's going to take a while,'" she said.

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Associated Press writer Anne-Marie Garcia contributed to this report.

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Michael Weissenstein on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mweissenstein